“You’re moving where?! Why?!”

North and South Dakota

Steph Larsen on the road in North and South Dakota
Photo: ruralaffairs.

This response was by far the most common among acquaintances when I told them excitedly that I was leaving my Washington, D.C. job directing the policy program at Community Food Security Coalition to be an organizer in rural Nebraska at the Center for Rural Affairs. Not that I blame them entirely; while I did grow up in Wisconsin, and I am not afraid of the “Midwest fly-over zone” as coastal people like to call it, the smallest town I’d ever lived in for any length of time had a population of 65,000. It was nearly unfathomable to my east coast friends that I would want to live in a town of 963, where the nearest city of any size was 60 miles away. They searched for some reason, some justification that could explain why I would do such a thing.

After all, who doesn’t love the crowds of people, endless traffic, and always being a hair’s breadth away from being sideswiped on my bike or rundown by a bus? Or, the bad air, non-existent housing, the unending concrete, and always looking over your shoulder or down an alley for someone trying to make trouble? Few stars, tiny yards, and nowhere for me to really be alone or feel at home.

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What’s not to love about city life?

Yet I traded it all for an affordable house with my own kitchen and a garden that gave more tomatoes than I knew what to do with. I’ve got a view of a cornfield, a community where everyone nods a hello when I pass, air that doesn’t make me wince, and water I can drink out of the tap. Here in Lyons, Nebraska, I have everything I need on a daily basis within a very short walk: a library, a bank, the post office, the grocery store, the bar, and the restaurant. There’s a gas station and convenience store, a mechanic — in case I ever buy a car, a doctor, and a dentist. All the stars I could ever care to look at with lightning bugs to supplement in the summer.

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Honestly, it was not a tough choice.

Urban residents depend on healthy, vibrant rural communities more than I think most people realize. Rural places reconnect us to our natural environment and provide vital environmental services like carbon storage and water filtration. If no one lived in rural areas, who would sound the alarm when a livestock confinement operation pollutes the air and water or erosion threatens to reduce our ability to grow food?

Rural communities also give us a choice. I live where I do because I enjoy the pace and the beauty, and there comes a point in many people’s lives when the city just doesn’t look very nice anymore. Without vibrant rural communities, people living in the country wouldn’t have access to electricity, broadband, or any of the other amenities we have become accustomed to in our modern lives. Small towns and family farms are vital components of the American fabric, and I hope to be blogging more about them in the coming months.